Four ways to drive adoption and usage of mobile-enabled services among underserved women: Lessons from the GSMA Innovation Fund

3.2 billion of the unconnected population worldwide live within the footprint of a mobile broadband network but are not using mobile internet – the vast majority of them live in low- and-middle-income countries (LMICs). This usage gap is more pronounced among women, who are 19% less likely than men to use mobile internet across LMICs and 17% less likely than men to own a smartphone. Consequently, they do not have access to the increasing range of life-enhancing digital innovations, products and services available.

In most LMICs, more than 80% of adults are aware of mobile internet, but women are consistently less likely than men to be aware of it. As a result, start-ups are losing a substantial proportion of their addressable market. Our recent report highlights the impact of eight start-ups that were part of the GSMA Innovation Fund for Mobile Internet Adoption and Digital Inclusion. It contains learnings on addressing the barriers faced by underserved populations and lessons on scaling digital solutions in LMICs. In this blog, we share four additional learnings from the Fund start-ups on reaching women in LMICs specifically.

1. Design your marketing and promotional activities around the places and the times of day that women are available

Place and time are important considerations in promoting digital solutions with women. For example, Zambian women-led start-up, WidEnergy Africa, and Zonful Energy in Zimbabwe, increased their reach with women customers for their smartphone financing schemes, by using female agents to visit women in their homes and local market areas, where many income-earning women can be met in a convenient way for them. The start-ups found this approach to be more effective for reaching women than larger, mainstream campaign efforts as it provides an opportunity to directly address questions or concerns raised by women or their family members.

The time of day that promotional messages are sent is also important for women. Social norms may limit some women’s access to a smartphone, such as only being permitted to use it at certain times of day or via a shared device. In some conservative contexts, start-ups need to communicate via gatekeepers (eg. husbands or fathers) at convenient times of the day, to reach and ensure women’s use of digital services. For example, a one-time pass code for registration might be received on the male gatekeeper’s handset or a shared device, so needs to be sent at a time when they are at home. Orenda, an ed-tech platform in Pakistan, addressed this difficulty by sending out promotional messages after work hours, making a deliberate effort to ensure messages and apps could be downloaded when male gatekeepers were available to give instant permission and access to women. Women were then able to register and facilitate the use of the app for their children.

2. Leverage partnerships with organisations that complement your efforts to address the digital inclusion barriers faced by women

Driving women’s equal access and usage of digital innovations may require resources, capabilities and networks that a single start-up or organisation lack. Partnering with organisations who have complementary assets, trusted networks and expertise is important to better reach and serve women. In Uganda, Ensibuuko partnered with a local mobile operator, Airtel, to address the device ownership gap among Ensibuuko’s rural female customers. Through this partnership, Airtel provided low-cost smartphones through an affordable device financing scheme along with free data bundles. Airtel also paid commissions for Ensibuuko’s digital agents to help Ensibuuko customers acquire a SIM card and open a mobile money account. The agents delivered essential mobile digital skills training to women leveraging the GSMA Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit resources. This ensured women had the basic skills required to use their new devices to access Ensibuuko’s digital services and other relevant mobile internet services.

Africa 118, an Ethiopian start-up helping MSMEs in Africa to build a strong digital presence, faced challenges to identify and reach women micro-entrepreneurs. To overcome this challenge, Africa 118 partnered with local women’s entrepreneur associations to leverage their existing reach, relationship and trust among their female members. These organisations identified relevant entrepreneurs who would benefit from Africa 118’s services as well as advise Africa 118 on how best to serve their members and design the skills training to meet their needs.

3. Engage male gatekeepers as active stakeholders

In the drive to boost uptake of mobile internet and digital solutions among underserved women especially in more conservative settings, start-ups often have to consider gatekeepers as key stakeholders. Start-ups must identify which gatekeepers need to be brought in to ensure uptake and how best to communicate the right value to these gatekeepers.

WidEnergy Africa, a Zambian smartphone financing firm, devised creative approaches to target not just potential female customers, but also their husbands. The value proposition was sold to the gatekeeper, who could get a new pay-as-you-go smartphone. If he already had a smartphone, he could be re-oriented on the value of women’s smartphone ownership and his existing device could be given to his wife. In most instances, wives were first-time smartphone users. They were also provided with basic digital skills training to use the device and mobile services.

4. Empower women as agents of change to reach more women

Overall, there is evidence that female agents tend to appeal more to women, deliver better customer service, and generally improve acquisition and retention of customers, than male agents. When they are engaged strategically or incentivised, underserved women can become advocates of digital solutions. Three start-ups, Zonful Energy, Ensibuuko and WidEnergy Africa, are empowering and commissioning trusted women from the local community, who are already users of the digital solution, as agents. These agents then promote the start-ups’ solutions among fellow women. Some of the start-ups kept a healthy portfolio of female agents to reach other customers, particularly women. For example, more than 40% of all sales agents in WidEnergy’s team were female. Similarly, Ensibuuko identified “champion” village and savings group members who are trained as digital agents to equip other women with the knowledge and skills to adopt this digital solution and take control of their finances. By empowering women as agents to reach more women, start-ups can provide the ongoing support to build their confidence and overcome any concerns about the digital solutions.

Driving uptake among women, especially the underserved rural and low-income women, takes deliberate and tailored efforts. Start-ups should explicitly address women’s needs, circumstances and challenges in the design and implementation of mobile-related products, services, interventions and policies. The four learnings highlighted above are some approaches that worked to enhance women’s uptake of digital solutions in underserved markets. For related recommendations see the GSMA’s practical guide to reaching women with mobile.

Read the full report here for details about how start-ups in LMICs are reaching women and underserved segments with innovative digital solutions.

The Connected Society programme is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and is supported by the GSMA and its members.

The GSMA Innovation Fund for Mobile Internet Adoption and Digital Inclusion is funded by the FCDO, and supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft Für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GMBH, the GSMA and its members.